Words for Thought – March 2019

Welcome to March’s “Words for Thought.” Perhaps it’s the craving for spring and warmer weather, but this month’s stories are all about different flavors of longing. Enjoy!

The Message by Vanessa Fogg, published at The Future Fire, is a story of friends separated by vast distance. Sarah is in Wisconsin; her best friend, Chloe, is in Melbourne. They stay in touch through instant messages and shared fan fiction, mashing up their two favorite anime shows, From the Deeps and Sweep of Stars. Their characters are separated by light-years, but find their way to each other, acting as a mirror for Sarah and Chloe’s own relationship. As their characters navigate their feelings, so do Chloe and Sarah—Sarah especially, who feels more than friendship for Chloe, but is afraid to find out whether her feelings are reciprocated. In the background of both of their lives is the Message. Fifteen years ago, Sarah’s mother found a pattern in a series of radio waves and realized it was a message from the stars. No one has been able to decode the Message, and the more time that passes, the less funding and interest there is for the project.

Are you there? Chloe says, and she sends a picture she’s made of Haru caught by a kraken, squeezed in its arms, our dashing hero bug-eyed and deformed, and it’s grotesque but also hilarious. I laugh out loud. Together, we spin a comic story of how he ended up in that situation, of how his friends react and save him, of how the entire kraken army gets involved. We can riff like this forever. 

Fogg does a beautiful job of exploring different kinds of connectivity, different meanings of distance, and different forms of communication. Sarah and Chloe are physically far from each other, close through their shared fiction, and distant in being unable to talk honestly about their feelings. Through their shared fan fiction, Chloe and Sarah feel part of something larger, just as Sarah’s mother’s research made her feel humanity was part of a larger picture within the universe. Parallels of hope and longing run throughout the story, and ultimately, their separate uncertainty about the world brings Sarah and her mother closer. The story closes on a note of hope with the picture it paints of friendship, family bonds, and love.  

A Sharp Breath of Birds by Tina Connolly, from the March/April Uncanny, expresses longing through another kind of fiction—make-believe. As a child, the protagonist sees birds everywhere, ones she isn’t certain anyone else sees. She draws her next-door neighbor, Alice, into her world through games of “pretend” and it brings them closer together.

At seven, you see the birds regularly. You incorporate them into all your pretends; there is always some princess carried off by a bird to a nest made of raven feathers and filigreed spoons and shiny bits of silvered foil. Alice from next door easily accepts all the bird imagery as a fact of life; surely everybody plays games with birds in them, and she finds you books with more; the seven sparrows, and the dove maiden, and the nightingale at sea.

However, as Alice grows older, she begins to want more traditional things—a marriage and a life that doesn’t include the protagonist. The protagonist marries, as well, reluctantly, but her heart lies with Alice. She beings to sprout feathers, which she covers with capes in public, but she doesn’t pluck them out. When she reconnects with Alice again, she begins to suspect that Alice’s seemingly happy marriage may not be as happy as it appears, and that she may want more from life, too. The imagery in the story is striking, and within a relatively short space, Connolly infuses the story with longing, the sense of social restriction the two women feel, and allows them to find their way toward freedom.

Self-Storage Starts with the Heart by Maria Romasco-Moore, in Lightspeed, is a story about the darker side of longing, where friendship borders on obsession. Christopher is James’s only friend. Now that Christopher has moved away and has a new baby, he doesn’t have time for their old shared hobby of painting miniatures and staging historic battles, and James is having trouble coping. He considers going to one of the expensive facilities that allow people to store their loneliness, but finding the cost prohibitive, he designs his own homemade solution. He quickly branches out into selling the service to his neighbors, and everything seems to be working perfectly until Christopher unexpectedly comes back into his life.

People treated me differently all of sudden, out in the world. When I was lonely, people had avoided looking directly at me, had stepped around me on the sidewalk. They must have been able to sense it, somehow, clinging to my skin like the smell of cigarettes clings to the skin of smokers.

The story is a fascinating exploration of friendship, and the ways different people relate to each other and the world. Christopher makes friends easily; James does not. Their relationship is clearly unequal from the start, and James is simultaneously a sympathetic character and a frightening one. He complains Christopher doesn’t understand him; he can’t let go and move on. At the same time, he fails to even try to understand Christopher, or recognize the emotional labor he demands from him. The story is the perfect example of “everyone’s got their own shit going on,” and a reminder to try to see things from others’ point of view. The story also looks at emotion as a whole, and the way we process and/or avoid it, the danger of repressing feelings instead of coping with them, and what healing looks like for different people. It plays with a classic SF trope, asking what if you could mechanically/chemically/magically choose not to feel negative emotions? What would that look like, and what would it cost. As with Connolly and Fogg’s story, here Romasco-Moore plays with the thin line between intense friendship and love but explores the possibilities of what might happen if that love is only one sided, while still managing to end on a note of hope.

A Plea for a Haunting by Ray Yanek, from March’s Flash Fiction Online, is a story of longing that takes a different angle than the others. The relationship here is between brothers—one in the hospital, dying, the other endlessly scouring supposedly haunted houses trying to capture evidence of the supernatural. Like Connolly, Yanek packs a lot into just a few words, and conveys a great deal of emotion in the spaces between what appears on the page. Danny isn’t even all that interested in the supernatural; he wants this for his brother, to give him hope in something larger at the end of his life.

I squeeze my hands into fists. I hate it here in these places. I don’t want to be here. I want to be with my brother, remembering the blanket castles we used to make, and how we would hide in them and pretend nothing else existed.

Yet even as he resents them, the ghost hunts serve to recapture a more innocent time for both brothers, when they believed in UFOs, and before death was a real factor in their lives. Similar to the connections drawn in Fogg’s story, Yanek’s piece is a lovely meditation on the bond between siblings, and the longing to believe in something larger than yourself for the sake of someone you love.